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“Covid-19 has changed everything”: what it’s like to work in domestic abuse services during lockdown

Working with survivors of domestic abuse has never been easy – but it’s particularly difficult when the country is in lockdown. Here, three women tell Stylist how their vital work has changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

For many people in the UK, the last eight weeks have forced us to acclimatise to a slower, quieter pace of life. Maybe your working hours are no longer packed with less-than-essential meetings, or the absence of a commute is making your days feel calmer. Perhaps you’ve actually started taking that hour-long lunch break you’re entitled to.

But for people who work with survivors of domestic abuse, lockdown has offered no chance of a breather. Like many other essential frontline staff, the coronavirus pandemic means they are busier – and under more pressure – than ever.

Since lockdown began on 23 March, reports of domestic abuse have surged all over the UK, from the north London borough of Hackney (where domestic abuse referrals have risen by 60%) to Fife in Scotland, where requests for refuge accommodation have more than doubled.

According to a survey by Women’s Aid, more than two-thirds of survivors currently experiencing abuse say the problem has got worse since Covid-19 reached the UK. Refuge has experienced a rise of around 50% in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, and traffic to the helpline’s website has risen by around 300%. 

Domestic abuse and lockdown: for many survivors of domestic abuse, home is not a safe place

Domestic abuse is not caused by lockdown: it is perpetrators who are responsible for their actions, not an insentient virus. But the problem has clearly been heightened by measures which – in the interests of public health – have confined people to their homes.

“Lockdown has certainly exacerbated the risk already posed to vulnerable domestic abuse victims, as it forces victims to isolate in close quarters with their perpetrators,” Nicole Jacobs, the first domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales, tells Stylist. She adds that support structures that survivors might normally rely on to access help – from seeing friends to speaking to colleagues or dropping children off at school – may not be readily available during lockdown, while “pressures that intensify domestic abuse, such as financial worries, mental health issues and childcare” are increasing.

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The government has so far pledged at least £12m in additional funding for the domestic abuse sector during the pandemic, which will go towards creating more refuge bed spaces and boosting online support services and helplines for survivors. But the money represents a fraction of the £48.2m emergency cash that the domestic abuse sector needs to support all survivors, according to Women’s Aid. The charity called for the extra funding after a survey found that 84% of local domestic abuse services in England said they’d been forced to either reduce or cancel one or more services in the wake of the pandemic.

“The efforts of the domestic abuse sector during this period have been truly herculean,” Jacobs says. “Many helplines and services have increased their hours, worked different shifts to accommodate for changing needs, and made the difficult transition to working remotely. This is incredible considering the sector is historically vulnerable and underfunded. Thanks to them, support remains available for those most in need during this difficult time.”

Below, three women tell Stylist what it’s really like to work with domestic abuse survivors during lockdown. 

“Vicarious trauma can be an issue”

Sallie Barnes is a refuge manager at Solace Women’s Aid

“For the first few weeks of lockdown, we actually saw a slight dip in the volume of calls and emails we were getting about women and children needing refuge accommodation. It makes sense: if you’re stuck in isolation with an abuser, you’re not necessarily going to be able to leave and try to get yourself to a refuge.

But since Boris Johnson announced a relaxation of the lockdown rules on 10 May, we’ve been inundated with referrals. Solace and Southall Black Sisters just got new funding to provide short-term accommodation for people experiencing domestic abuse during the Covid-19 crisis, so I’m now managing a new refuge centre. There’s nearly always more demand than resource.

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The biggest change is having to social distance while supporting survivors. My instinct is to sit quite close to women and lean in to talk to them, but now we’ve got to sit far away from each other. That can be hard for some women experiencing the impact of trauma – and explaining it to a three-year-old can be impossible.

Working from home can be difficult if your job involves supporting survivors of abuse; it’s harder to keep your home and work lives separate, so vicarious trauma can be an issue. Everyone has been doing a lot of overtime. My colleague was supposed to have a day off last week, but ended up coming in so she could process all the referrals in her inbox and ensure people experiencing crisis could get into accommodation. There was one situation where abuse was escalating fast, and she was able to get the survivor into a refuge the following day. The reality is, if your conscience knows people are in crisis, you want to do something about it.”

“The support we’ve seen has been amazing”

Flora Gordon is a fundraising officer at Women’s Aid

“Before lockdown, my job involved supporting people’s fundraising activities. I also managed running events and occasionally went into universities to talk to students about how they could help raise money for Women’s Aid. Obviously, Covid-19 has changed everything. All our running events this summer have been cancelled, and our access to educational institutions has been severely limited. Our focus now is on encouraging supporters to keep fundraising, because it’s such a challenging time.

Fortunately, the support we’ve seen has been amazing. People have been taking part in virtual challenges to raise money to fund our online live chat service, which is a vital lifeline for women experiencing abuse. London City Voices Choir recorded a cover of You’ve Got A Friend over Zoom that has raised over £40,000 so far. One supporter did 1,000 laps of her back garden on her bike; it took her 12 hours and she raised over £12,000. 

Another has raised over £2,000 by swimming the length of the Channel in the pool in her garden. Personal trainer and Women’s Aid ambassador Alice Liveing raised over £15,000 for us by hosting live daily workouts in her living room. We even had a seven-year-old boy raise over £100 for Women’s Aid by printing tote bags. It’s been brilliant to see people’s creativity.

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But there will be challenges when lockdown eases. Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen a surge in people wanting to fundraise for us – I think because there’s been more coverage of domestic abuse in the news. But there’s a risk people will lose interest. So we’re planning virtual running events, participating in online festivals, all kinds of things to maintain that momentum.

It’s important to reiterate that while lockdown threatens to escalate domestic abuse, Covid-19 does not cause abuse and only perpetrators are responsible for their actions. Right now, abusers may be using lockdown as a tool to increase control, but abuse will still exist when social distancing measures are relaxed. So it’s essential that people keep supporting us so we can sustain our services.”

“I get stressed when I see how many people need our help”

Christina Johnson* is pro-bono manager at the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV)

“At the NCDV, we help domestic abuse survivors obtain protective orders against their abuser through the family courts. These include non-molestation orders, which relate to people, and occupation orders, which relate to a place. For example, a non-molestation order may stop a perpetrator coming within a certain distance of their victim, while an occupation order could be used to exclude an abuser from a family home.

Our clients are people who don’t qualify for free legal aid. We’re not family lawyers; we can’t give legal advice. But we can assist survivors in navigating the system by informing them about how to make an application, what a hearing can involve and how to approach things – from drafting their witness statements to filling out court application forms.

Since lockdown started, we’ve been busier than ever. Our work hasn’t changed, but the number of people seeking our assistance has increased considerably. During the lockdown period in 2020, we have helped 739 litigants in person. In the same period during 2019, we assisted 484, which is a 52% increase. 

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Lockdown hasn’t just affected the amount of abuse going on; it’s affecting people’s ability to seek protection. In normal times, we might call a client to take a witness statement during their lunchbreak at work or whilst their abuser is out of the house. But if someone is trapped at home with their abuser, it can be incredibly difficult for them to speak on the phone. We can provide them with a template statement to complete which we will check for them – but they need to have access to a computer. I get stressed when I see how many people we have on the system needing our help because they are suffering. The challenge is helping people quickly enough.

If you are experiencing domestic abuse during the pandemic, whether that’s physical violence or coercive control, please know that lockdown restrictions do not prevent you leaving – although I accept that’s a lot easier in principle than in practice. Go to a place of safety and call the police. If you can’t leave the house but need to call 999, you must do so. Please don’t give up hope. If you get in touch with us, we will do our best to help.”

The National Centre for Domestic Violence offers a free, fast emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence regardless of their financial circumstances, race, gender or sexual orientation. Text NCDV to 60777, call 0800 9702070, or visit ncdv.org.uk

Images: Getty; Unsplash/Gleren Meneghin

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